I think it’s time for some more cover analysis, don’t you?
This discussion may actually be a short one, because so far as I can tell there are a whole two US covers for this series, and even internationally I’m only finding one other variation. I still want to look at it, though. It’s one of the first works that pops to mind when I think “they shouldn’t have changed this cover, at least not in that way” and for good reason. There are multiple issues with the shift, from both the real world and industry politics that caused it.
Because most of the issue with the second cover set is political. The change was certainly controversial; the ire over it was how I found the series in the first place. Take a look at the two American variants available for the first book and you can probably see why.
Now, this is fantasy set in alt-world China. The shift from an explicitly Asian girl for the first variant to a girl who…probably isn’t but has enough of her face covered that there’s plausible deniability caused a stir, to say the least.
It didn’t help that this change was made around the time when The Last Airbender and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time came out, two movies that had their respectively Asian and Middle Eastern protagonists played by white actors. Or that all of these issues cropped up a year, at most, after Racefail had already blown open the racial fault lines in the Sci Fi and Fantasy genres. The change in the cover felt like just another hit in an already tense environment, and the controversy was wrapped up in the general anger over whitewashing that was coming to a head at the time.
This problem, the real world issue of representation, is really the most important reason they shouldn’t have changed this cover. But many other people have talked about that in more detail and far more eloquently than I could.
You’ll notice that the first link up there talks about how the author and publisher eventually released statements saying the reason for the change was that booksellers refused to take the novel on with the first variation. And that they thought it was worth it to have the story out there, even with a less than ideal cover.
And, generally, I agree. A character named Ai Ling is very obviously not white, in spite of a misleading cover, and that character is good to have among the overwhelmingly pale shelves of YA romance. Having the story out there regardless is important, even if the cover has some rather awful implications. I can get behind the idea that it’s a bad solution, but they might not have had a better one.
But then there’s the other problem.
There’s a part of me that still has a major issue with the second variant, even if it’s comparatively inconsequential. That thinks, quite simply, that it doesn’t fit the series.
I mean, yes, the YA romance aspect is there, but take the kissing out and the novel is a high fantasy quest set in basically ancient China. The first cover reflects this beautifully. Bright colors! Sweeping landscapes! Dramatic poses! Ancient clothing and buildings! Actual Asian model! Even if the people approving these things weren’t worried about the social implications of their work, you’d think they’d be concerned with appropriate design.
The second cover has the glowing, magical item to its name, but that’s about it. I mean, what else do you get off of these two?
Two girls on flat color backgrounds in modern clubbing clothes. Everything about this screams urban fantasy set in a modern world with a secret magical underground, down to the blurbs from Alyson Noel. Just looking at the covers I would expect something along the lines of Mortal Instruments or The Dresden Files. Even beyond the racial aspect these two designs are obviously attempting to paint the series as something that it’s not, because the only thing they get right are the two very broad categories of “magic” and “romance.”
They could have done better, all around.
I can’t even fully blame the publisher here, though, because the reason behind the bad fit is most likely also political, at least on the industry level. Urban fantasy was what was selling in 2009. The booksellers wanted something they were more likely to make a buck on. The publisher believed in the story and wanted to keep it in the public eye, so they packaged it as what was getting picked up.
They did what they needed to in order to keep the series alive, and I guess I can’t complain that much about it. Even if those covers very much belong on another book. Even if I very much wish they had managed to work the story they were actually selling in, on both fronts.
I was going to end this making the rather depressing point that cover design is often more about what sells well than about representing the book, and pleading for publishers to try to find some compromise between the two. While trying to find pictures, though, I spotted this one.
This is the Indonesian cover, and I kind of love it. It strikes exactly the balance I was going to beg the publishing companies to find: stylish enough to appeal to teenage readers but with enough fantasy to actually give the idea of the series. If the artist has to play off of the “creepy demon” aspect of the books instead of the “high adventure” one to do that, so be it. At most I would criticize the lack of action in the design, but considering the circumstances, I’ll take it. It’s a good cover for the book. It’s nicely designed and it fits.
And both the character and the design are obviously Asian.
We can have the best of both worlds here; we just need to dig a little deeper for it.